Wild is a movie about a troubled woman who sets off by herself and walks over 1,000 miles in three months. It’s a literal journey of self-discovery. The most admirable aspect of the film made out of this trip is its willingness to downplay the discovery in favor of the experience of the isolation. We see her trudge across the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail reflecting on her life, cataloging her mistakes, confronting her regrets, and emerging on the other end with a greater understanding of herself. She’s not an immediately better person, but we see the seeds of awareness that will hopefully be flowering in her future. Because the movie’s based on author Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir of the same name, we know she’s about to see better days. The movie doesn’t linger overmuch on her change, giving center stage to the steps along the way.
We meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) as she begins her long hike, struggling to stand up after overloading her backpack, a rookie mistake. In other words, she’s dealing with some heavy baggage. Get it? We don’t know why she feels the need to attempt this walk, but there’s a real unease in Witherspoon’s demeanor, a hollowed out rawness that’s about to be bruised and blistered by her chosen ordeal. She’s always been a smart performer, even in movies so breezy or junky (like Legally Blonde or Fear) that it was easy to take her for granted. There’s intelligence behind her bubbliness, her charm, her bright eyes and petite stature. Here, she’s tapping into a shrewd wounded intelligence that’s flatter and glummer than we’ve seen her in quite some time. Her character is in a mental space that slowly reveals itself as coming from a place of addiction and grief.
It’s a terrific performance that anchors what is essentially a character study with a mystery at the center. Who is she? What brought her to this place? That was enough to keep me at least mildly interested. As we follow Cheryl’s walkabout, her backstory is filled in with non-chronological flashes of past. It becomes clear she’s a person whose life hasn’t gone the way she’d hoped, hitting a rough patch of unwanted pregnancy, divorce, substance abuse, and infidelity. We see her relationship with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), and her free spirit mother (Laura Dern). Other figures from her past (like Gaby Hoffmann) come to her mind. Meanwhile, in the present, she encounters all sorts of characters on the trail, fellow hikers, farmers, hippies, college kids, and a guy who says he’s a reporter for The Hobo Times. It’s uneven by its very nature. When it works, fine, but when it doesn’t, I was wishing it would hurry up and move on to the next stop.
Whatever small restraint screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) show in refusing to find easy lessons in a real life’s complications is partly undone by their stumbling approach caught halfway between sentimental uplift and artful impressionism. It’s a wobbly mix of earnest self-help sparkle and collage of memory and pain. It neither solves the problem of the episodic repetition of depicting the long, mostly lonely, walk, nor uses the grinding monotony of her journey as experiential aesthetic. It gives her moments of insight, danger, despair, and connection, but seems to be trudging along, hitting its emotional mile markers more than it is evoking her mental and physical state.
She’s broken down spiritually, and has to break down bodily to begin to build back up again. That’s moving. Witherspoon’s performance sells it. But the movie itself is at a loss as to how best maximize that asset. Hornby’s script makes fine connections and moving juxtapositions, but Vallée’s direction is so self-consciously loose and scruffy, slipping from past to present with a flat-footed sense of obviousness. He’s simply pointing his camera at ideas of womanhood, literature, illness, and wilderness without actually engaging with the content. It’s representation, not interpretation. Perhaps that’s why he’s so good at capturing great performances and then diluting their potential impact by entombing them in glossy but flavorless movies, like McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club or Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria. Wild is the best of the three, especially worth seeing for Witherspoon successfully stretching her acting muscles. But I wished it could’ve been a wilder, more adventurous movie to better match the material and be worthy of its lead’s good work.